/// Health Groups Criticize Allergy Drug Promotion
Public health advocates on Wednesday accused the drug company Merck of improperly marketing an over-the-counter allergy medicine directly to children using animated characters from the movie “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.”
Advocacy groups worry that children may confuse the Merck medicine with candy.
In a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the Public Health Advocacy Institute and 10 other groups, called the marketing strategy for Children’s Claritin dangerous and deceptive, pointing to the inclusion of Madagascar stickers in some boxes of the product, the creation of activity books that parents can download for their children and the enlistment of a team of mothers who blog to hold Claritin-themed Madagascar viewing parties for their children and friends.
The group also warned that children may confuse the grape-flavored Claritin tablets and syrup for candy because the same characters are used to promote other children’s products, like candy and gummy snacks.
“The number of children’s food products featuring Madagascar-licensed products creates a very real danger of product confusion,” according to the complaint.
Kelley Dougherty, a Merck spokeswoman, said the company was reviewing the matter, but added, “We advertised in appropriate venues to reach those parents of children who may benefit from the use of Claritin, and not to the children themselves.”
The complaint argues that Merck violated longstanding precedent that discourages companies from marketing over-the-counter supplements and drugs directly to children. It mentions a 1977 F.T.C. order that prevented a company from advertising Spider-Man vitamins on television and in print advertisements in comic books, asserting that children are not qualified to decide whether or not they need vitamins. Parents were instead considered the appropriate focus of such advertising.
Cara Wilking, the senior staff attorney at the Public Health Advocacy Institute, said the Merck case is similarly egregious but has been updated for modern-day media.
“These are all things that are designed to appeal to children, but they are using new technologies in a way that needs to be addressed by the Federal Trade Commission,” she said.
Mary K. Engle, the associate director for advertising practices at the F.T.C., said the agency would review the complaint. She cautioned against assuming that the 1977 order sets precedent for the current case, noting that the law governing what constitutes an unfair practice has changed. She said many brands of children’s vitamins feature cartoon characters or action heroes, including Flintstones- and Disney-branded products.
Ms. Engle said she was not aware of another recent example in which the agency had considered a case involving supplements or drugs marketed to children.
Ms. Wilking said Merck’s practice went beyond simply displaying the Madagascar characters on its packaging. The campaign features a Facebook page in which parents can download a Claritin-themed activity book, as well as a “Circus Stackers” game starring the Madagascar characters. The company also enlisted its “Children’s Claritin Mom Crew” — a group of mothers with blogs who had signed up to receive free samples of the drug — to hold movie parties timed to the release of “Madagascar 3” this month. Merck sent the mothers DVDs, popcorn boxes and Claritin samples.
Photographs posted on some of the blogs show children posing with samples of the drug. In others, the drug packets were included in party favor cups. One mother passed out gummy snacks that featured the Madagascar characters along with promotional materials for Claritin. “I set up a small gathering of friends, complete with popcorn, Claritin samples (because allergies are still going crazy here in Florida), and penguin gummies,” the mother wrote.
According to the complaint, DreamWorks Animation, which released the movie along with Paramount, licensed the Madagascar characters to at least 15 companies in connection with the release of the latest movies. The characters adorn Dole bananas, Airheads candy, McDonald’s Happy Meals, and even House Foods organic tofu.
A DreamWorks spokeswoman declined to comment.
“This is basically creating consumer confusion among children and creating the impression that these over-the-counter drugs are candy on a par with other children’s food products,” Ms. Wilking said.
In addition to Ms. Wilking’s group, other organizations that signed the complaint include Public Citizen and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.